Who’s On First?

Baseball has its own version of English. That’s not unusual; what is out of the ordinary is how much of that “Baseballish” has become part of the common language.

Well-known quotes include Satchel Paige’s famous line “Don’t look back. Something might be gaining on you.” and Casey Stengel’s “The trick is growing up without growing old.”

One could write an entire blog (not a post, a whole blog) made of nothing but quips and quotes from Yogi Berra. Come to think of it, somebody probably has written that blog already.

People who never follow baseball use baseball terms without even thinking about it. How often have you heard that a business meeting has gone into extra innings? When was the last time your boss reminded you to cover all your bases or come up with a ballpark figure? Heard a rumor that someone got to second or even third base after a few drinks at last weekend’s party?

Then there are those parts of Baseballish that haven’t made it into common English.

In 1969, Dick Schaap and Paul Zimmerman pointed out that sportscasters habitually omit the word “base” as if it was an obscenity: players don’t “reach base on an error,” they “reach on an error;” they don’t “play second base,” they “man second;” and you’ll never hear “the bases are loaded,” it’ll be “they’re loaded up,” or “they’re juiced”.

Certain phrases are mandatory. Most notably, the infield fly rule is always invoked. Always. I think that’s documented in MLB’s rules of the game. Almost as common is calling an intentional walk an “intentional pass”. I’m not sure what’s behind that; maybe they’re saving the word “walk” for something else?.

What’s really fascinating to me are the phrases that didn’t make it, the phrases that shouldn’t have made it, and sportscasters’ just plain stupid remarks.

What didn’t make it? How about the “walk-off walk”? A walk-off hit is one that scores the winning run for the home team in the last inning. Since there isn’t a possibility for the visiting team to counter, the game is over as soon as the run scores, so both teams walk off the field. “Walk-off hit” and variations such as “walk-off single” and “walk-off grand slam” are common. Suddenly, a couple of years ago, there was a fad for calling a bases-loaded walk that scored the winning run a “walk-off walk”. Every sportscaster used it most of the season, and then it vanished. Why? I suspect it just sounded too cute. Or maybe it just acted as a kind of mental speed bump with the double “walk” bouncing the listeners’ brains off the inside of their skulls.

How about expressions that shouldn’t have made it? My least favorite is “That’s a big out”? Sorry, they’re all big outs. Getting the third out of an inning with nobody on base ends the inning just as well as if the bases are loaded. Getting the second out with a runner on third doesn’t reduce the risk of giving up a run by that much. Please, sportscasters, lose that one.

Almost as bad: “It’s a whole new ballgame.” This one gets trotted out every time the score gets tied. I’ll grind my teeth but ignore it when it’s still early in the game. If I hear it after the third inning, I start to scream and throw things. It’s not a whole new ballgame unless the umpires are going to throw out all of the action that’s already occurred*. A 3-3 tie in the top of the sixth isn’t a new game, it’s a smidgeon more than a third of a game. And the less said about using the expression when the home team ties the game in the bottom of the ninth, the better. Sure, we’re going to extra innings, but the number of games that run to eighteen innings is miniscule. (Even worse, more often than not, a ninth inning tie will also induce an announcer to proclaim “Looks like we get free baseball.” Since when? Attendance is a flat rate. I don’t get a refund if the game gets shortened by rain, and as far as I know, there’s never been a serious attempt to charge extra for extra innings.)

* This will never happen. There’s no provision in the rules for it.

Moving on.

Let’s wrap this up with a selection of my favorite mental lapses by sportscasters. I know they’re under a lot of pressure to fill air time–heaven forbid that the viewers might fill dead air with their own thoughts–but some of the comments are so egregious that they really should get on-air apologies.

I’m going to keep these anonymous, mostly because I was too flabbergasted to take notes about the culprits. Rest assured that they are not limited to any particular team’s announcers. I’ve collected these from radio and TV broadcasts all over MLB.

  • A pitcher has just given up his second hit of the game, and the announcer says “He’s only given up two hits…and the six walks haven’t really hurt him yet.” Say what? Then where did those four runs on the scoreboard come from?
  • The catcher stands up behind home and holds his glove out to the side. That’s the universal signal for giving the batter an intentional walk. Says the announcer, “Let’s see if they give him an intentional pass.”
  • At the start of a night game, the announcer portentiously intones “It’s a brand new day in Houston.” Sorry, buddy. It’s 7 PM there and the sun is about to set. If you’re trying to do some metaphorical thing, you need to establish the metaphor by talking about the previous dark days. You can’t just jump into the middle like that.
  • Finally, from this year’s All-Star Game: “This is the first time the American and National League teams have worn a cap specially designed for the 2014 All-Star Game.” Really? I could have sworn that both teams wore 2014 All-Star Game caps in 1962, 1999, and 2004. It could have been worse, I suppose. At least he didn’t try to tell us that the winning league would get the home field advantage in the 2003 World Series.


The end of civilization as we know it? Nope.

The end of television as we know it? Nope.

What am I talking about? Nope.

Oh, sorry. Got caught up in the flow there. I’m talking about the WWE’s announcement of its upcoming 24/7 streaming service. Yup, that’s wrestling around the clock and around the calendar.

And yes, it has seriously be called both the end of civilization and the end of television. Even in the modern age of hype, that’s pushing the bar to a new low.

Come on, folks. Professional wrestling in all of its cartoonish, scripted splendor has been with us for nearly a century (Wikipedia dates it to 1929). Its popularity has cycled up and down and, let’s face it, right now it’s well below the levels it reached in the 1980s, or even the late 1990s. This new venture is expected to break even at 1,000,000 subscribers and WWE’s own research doesn’t think it will crack 4,000,000. That’s a small enough number that even if the entire viewership went outside and started jumping up and down while making obscene gestures at baseball, apple pie, and mother, civilization wouldn’t even notice the threat. Phooey to the end of civilization.

As for the end of television, again phooey. Most of the content will be re-runs of shows already aired on TV. The only actual potential conflict here is for WWE’s pay-per-view events. They’re included with the subscription to the new channel, so it seems likely that the channel will cut into the audience who would previously have bought individual events.

Lucrative though they may be, PPV events are not what keeps TV in business. What does? Selling commercial space and carriage fees. All the WWE is doing here is cutting out the middle-man and getting their money directly from the viewers instead of indirectly from the cable and satellite providers.

Let me make one thing clear: I don’t watch professional wrestling and don’t really understand its appeal. I don’t have anything against it or its viewers. To the extent that I think about it, which isn’t much, I wish the WWE well with its venture. I just ask them, and the media that’s promoting their announcement, to tone down the hype just a smidgeon. I know over-the-top hype is part of the wrestling package. Very meta to make it part of the channel announcement. But it just doesn’t fly. Sorry.